Stewart O’Nan’s ‘The Odds: A Love Story,’ reviewed by Ron Charles
Stewart O’Nan seems incapable of writing a false line. Whether describing the unimaginable (losing one’s child) or the mundane (losing one’s appetite), his modest sentences crystallize the lives of ordinary people. His previous novel, “Emily, Alone,” described the daily outings of an 80-year-old widow in Pittsburgh. Emily’s pulse beat stronger than her story, but with all the novel’s insight and charm, that lack of action didn’t matter. O’Nan is an author you learn to trust, no matter what he’s writing about.
“The Odds” is another in his growing body of distinctly trim books. He can write long — “Wish You Were Here” was too long — but his talent shows off best in these careful miniatures. Once again, he’s given us a story line that seems daringly sparse. Even the opening punches — smuggling cash! highway crash! — immediately give way to the small, plain movements of a middle-aged couple in a hotel room. This willfully anti-dramatic structure succeeds only because O’Nan writes well enough to render the choreography of domestic life as captivating as the drama that usually keeps our attention in fiction. If the thrills are low, the stakes are nonetheless high.
We meet just two characters in “The Odds”: Art and Marion Fowler, who have taken a bus from Cleveland to Niagara Falls for “a ridiculous gamble” on Valentine’s Day. While all around them newlyweds revel in newfound bliss and older couples celebrate anniversaries, Art and Marion have booked a top-floor bridal suite for “the final weekend of their marriage,” a cool impersonation of everyone else’s giddiness. Their relationship has all but died under the stress of betrayal, guilt and weariness. (If opposites attract, I can’t help fantasizing about what a perverse coupling this quiet novel would make with Joyce Carol Oates’s modern Gothic “The Falls,” which opens with an overwrought newlywed fleeing the bridal suite and throwing himself into Niagara Falls!)
Laid off from a good job in insurance, buried under $250,000 of debt and about to lose the house, Art is the sad face of our moribund economy. Years of hard work and careful investing weren’t enough to spare him and his wife from the financial crisis. But Art has a plan involving their remaining savings and some cash squeezed from soon-to-be-canceled credit cards. After months of practicing online, he thinks they can hit the jackpot on the roulette wheel in the hotel casino. The fragility of his optimism is wrenching.
What interests O’Nan, though, is the higher-stakes gamble that Art is making to save his marriage, a goal that Marion may no longer share. Treading lightly between husband and wife, the novel captures a distinctly masculine kind of determination and naivete: “His greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope,” O’Nan writes. “Tonight, with the Falls roaring below their window . . . he would prove that while they’d reached the age where passion sometimes flagged, his love for her was as strong as ever.”
But for Marion, Art’s “indomitable hope” is just one more endearing though exhausting claim on her worn-out heart, something to be endured before returning home and starting over, alone. “She’d convinced herself that the great movements in her life were in the past and succumbed to the inertia of middle age.” Art’s eruptions of optimism are one of the things she won’t miss. “It took so little to encourage him. Did he understand,” she wonders, “how hard it was to believe a word he said?”
That tension between husband and wife could grow moldy in the close confines of these largely action-free pages, but O’Nan knows how to break up the passages of recrimination and regret. In short, finely cut scenes, we see the Fowlers whiling away the hours before their big game in the casino: They tour the Falls; they dress up for a fancy dinner; they get high during a revival Heart concert — all the corny cliches of romance laid out in the brochures. They even dutifully make love in the giant hot tub, a hilariously awkward bit of acrobatics for two 50-year-olds trying to recapture the magic. And each chapter offers a wry statistic to set the mood: “Odds of a U.S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 95,” “Odds of vomiting on vacation: 1 in 6,” “Odds of being served breakfast in bed on Valentine’s Day: 1 in 4.”
But it’s O’Nan’s attention to the murmurs of exasperation and smothered ardor that will unsettle you. I read “The Odds” over my 27th anniversary, and I defy any long-married husband to make it through these pages without feeling the bracing wind of exposure. Our neediness, our brittle impatience, our loony sense that sexual satisfaction redeems the universe: It’s all laid out here in prose that’s deceptively modest. A few hours with this witty, sad, surprisingly romantic novel might be a better investment for troubled couples than a month of marriage counseling.
Indeed, O’Nan possesses the sharp eye of a vicious satirist, but his heartfelt concern for these people protects them from the lacerating lines they’d endure under the care of Jonathan Franzen or Claire Messud. Even as Art and Marion rehearse their disappointments and failures, their melancholy maintains the novel’s poignancy clear to the end.
The odds are against it, but as the cover promises, this is “A Love Story.” We persist, O’Nan suggests, no matter what the chance of failure. Overexposed by garish lights and domesticated into a cheesy cliche, Niagara keeps roaring away in the background, a strangely apt metaphor for the paradox of marriage: an endless surge of passion or a river of tears, but still such a powerful, awesome force.
Odds of enjoying this novel: 1 in 1.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
A Love Story
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking. 179 pp. $25.95